On the 28th of January, President Biden released a memorandum intended to reverse the harm to women’s reproductive healthcare inflicted by the Trump administration. Among other things, the memorandum ordered the withdrawal of the U.S’s signature and sponsorship of the Geneva Consensus Declaration, a controversial international anti-abortion declaration.
The declaration was unveiled in October of 2020 by the then-Director of the U.S Central Intelligence Agency Mike Pompeo. It claims to “improve and secure access to health and development gains for women, including sexual and reproductive health, which must always promote optimal health, the highest attainable standard of health” as well as protect the health of the family and affirm women’s fundamental human rights. The central tenet of the document, however, is the assertion that “the child… needs special safeguards and care… before as well as after birth” and “there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion.”
Although the declaration clearly attempts to parallel other UN international human rights institutions, such as the Geneva Human Rights Convention, it is not an official UN declaration, nor is it legally binding. Among its sponsors are the U.S., Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and Uganda and 35 signatories, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, and South Sudan. Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings institute told Foreign Policy magazine: “[the signatories are] a combination of authoritarian governments, governments with very strong religious views on women’s rights, highly populist governments that are exploiting polarization and cleavages, and often basic rollback of human rights […] Or countries like Sudan, South Sudan and Libya, that the U.S. can coerce.”
Although the declaration claims to affirm that “all are equal before the law,” the human rights records of its signatories indicate that it is unlikely that this component of the document will be taken seriously. Ipas senior policy advisor Gillian Kane told the Guardian: “None of our like-minded partners are there, and none of the people on the list could care less about women. It’s a failure of diplomacy.” Among the signatories are six of the world’s most unsafe countries for women according to the Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20 and nineteen authoritarian regimes. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, the penal code prohibits “debasement of honour without consent,” rendering pre-marital sex punishable by incarcerationand making it impossible for unmarried pregnant women to seek medical care without fear of being turned over to the authorities.
Some of the signatories even appear to view the declaration as an attempt to rebuke women’s reproductive rights in existing international law. Ugandan health minister Jane Ruth Aceng Ocero encouraged fellow African nations to form an alliance within the U.N to protect conservative values, while Hungary’s Family Minister Katalin Novak proclaimed that the declaration symbolised a united attempt to combat the U.N.’s “human rights fundamentalism agenda.” The U.S. government themselves marked the declaration as a refreshing departure from the “radical agenda” of international human rights.
Other signatories wasted no time in enacting their commitment to the declaration; the same day that the declaration was released, the Polish government announced its plans to revoke the laws authorising abortion in the case of severe foetal abnormalities, which was responsible for the majority of abortions performed in the country. The announcement sparked outrage and street protests across 60 Polish towns, resulting in the implementation of the new legislature being delayed until earlier this week.
Tellingly, Pompeo spoke predominantly about the anti-abortion component of the declaration at its signing, proclaiming that “abortion isn’t a human right.” Human rights activists have argued that Pompeo’s is mistaken; The Human Rights Committee (2018) claim that the right to life in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) entails that limitations on abortion access ought not to “jeopardize [women’s] lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy.” Further, nations should not to implement legislation which clashes with their obligations to ensure that women are not forced to undergo clandestine abortions.
Even supposing that there is no international right to abortion, it seems highly unlikely that the signatories of the Geneva Consensus Declaration could both ”improve and secure access to health and development gains for women, including sexual and reproductive health, which must always promote optimal health” and “reaffirm that there is no international right to abortion, nor any international obligation on the part of States to finance or facilitate abortion.”
For one, making abortion illegal does not reduce the overall number of abortions performed; it simply increases the proportion of those abortions which are unsafe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that abortion rates in countries where abortion is legal are approximately the same as in countries where it is illegal. The anti-abortion tenet of the declaration thus does nothing to “protect the rights of the unborn child” while increasing health risks for women.
There is also reason to believe that making abortion illegal increases the burden on already floundering healthcare systems in developing countries. WHO reports that 45% of all abortions are unsafe, the vast majority of which occur in developing countries. Further, 25% of unsafe abortions are likely to result in temporarily or permanently disabling health complications requiring medical attention. Complications from unsafe abortions currently cost an annual $553 million and an additional US$ 373 million would be required to treat all cases. Stigma and religious opposition to abortion can also cause women to be reluctant to seek out healthcare from abortion-related complications, imposing a further indirect cost to women’s health. Considering that many of the declaration’s signatories are currently suffering from rape epidemics, committing to ensure that abortion remains illegal unfairly penalises women in vulnerable situations while doing nothing to protect their health.
Some human rights activists have also argued that the Geneva Consensus Declaration marginalises LGBTQ people. Although there is no explicit reference to homosexuality in the document, it singles out the family as a protected category and as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society,” language which has previously been associated with opposition to gay rights movements. At the signing, Hungary’s Family Minister Katalin Novak, who is chair of a far-right political organisation which opposes LGBTQ rights, said: “In the name of gender ideology, ideological neocolonialism, and sex education, there are efforts to devalue the traditional family, the institution of marriage, the blessing of having children.” Further, co-sponsors Egypt and Uganda still regard homosexuality as illegal, with homosexual sex being punishable by death in Uganda.
Trump may have been playing to his predominantly white, conservative Christian voter demographic in unveiling the declaration just weeks before the U.S. general election. The President of the Center for Health and Gender Equity Serra Sippel rebuked the declaration by arguing that the policies of the U.S. government ought to “reflect the ideals of the American people – not the fringe, conservative, Christian ideologies in power.” According to the Pew Research Center, while it is true that the majority of Americans support legal abortion (57%) those who do not constitute 40% of the population and could hardly be characterised as a ‘fringe’ group; nor could the 46.8% of the population who voted for the Trump administration in 2020. While in reality, the American public’s attitudes to abortion may be more nuanced than the rhetoric of the U.S. government would suggest (as documented in the Wall Street Journal), it remains true that there is a substantial overlap between right-wing conservatism and anti-abortion attitudes. Further, Pew reports that 40% of people considered abortion to be an important determinant of their vote in the run-up to the 2020 general election.
It would thus be careless to triumphantly dismiss the actions of the Trump administration as an isolated anomaly and as unrepresentative of the American people; there clearly were and are a substantial number of American people who felt that Trump’s policies represented them. Academic Amy Chua argues that it was the internal political dividedness of America’s population into distinct and often conflicting ‘tribes’ which led to Trump’s election in 2016; she writes “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism—identity politics, political correctness—is tearing the country apart. They are both right.”
While Biden is in the process of victoriously reversing many of Trump’s policies, such as the Geneva Consensus Declaration, deeper work is required to ensure that it is not simply reinstated with the next administration. Biden must go further than merely withdrawing the U.S. sponsorship and signature from the Geneva Declaration Consensus and publicly denounce its message in an attempt to thoroughly dismantle its international influence. He is also charged with the difficult task of navigating a polarised political climate; he must act to ameliorate the detrimental impacts of Trump’s policies without alienating Trump’s supporters to such an extent that they retaliate in the next election. For while Trump may have left the Whitehouse, his legacy for women’s rights has the potential to licence dangerous restrictions on women’s reproductive healthcare for years to come.